The lonely hearts club may be larger than you realize. About a third of older adults say they frequently feel lonely, according to findings from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. And only about half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending time with family members, suggests a recent survey by the global health service company Cigna.
People whose main social contacts were at their place of work often feel that loss acutely after they retire. Many older adults are also at risk for isolation and loneliness because they’re divorced or have lost a partner. But a lack of caring companionship (including from family, friends, or a romantic partner) may make you more vulnerable to a number of health woes. In fact, several studies suggest that isolated and lonely people face a slightly higher risk of heart attack or stroke than people with stronger social networks.
The stress of loneliness
One reason may be that loneliness can be stressful, in part because solitary people don’t have anyone to help them regulate their emotions, says Dr. Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “We all need help managing stress, and we use different things to help us when we’re feeling upset,” he says. Say you’re having a lousy day — maybe you’re worried about a problem or fear you’ve made a mistake. Confiding in another person, whether it’s your spouse, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbor, can help you put it into perspective. “Sometimes, you can actually feel your body calming down,” says Dr. Waldinger.
Emotional stress has well-known physical effects. Elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are thought to trigger low-level inflammation. That, in turn, can damage various systems in the body — including the blood vessels and heart.
A long-running study of health and well-being that began 80 years ago, the Harvard Study of Adult Development (www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org), supports the notion that close relationships play a vital role in health. Dr. Waldinger, the study’s fourth director, notes that healthy social relationships at age 50 seem to be a better predictor of people’s physical health at age 80 than their midlife cholesterol levels.
Making new connections
Finding and nurturing new acquaintances and friends takes planning and effort. It can be especially hard if you live alone or are introverted. “The path of least resistance is to stay home with the TV on,” says Dr. Waldinger. But if you’re lonely, do your heart a favor and take the first step. Here are some suggestions for getting started:
Invite neighbors over for coffee or tea. Get to know people who live nearby with a casual get-together at your home.
Sign up for a class. Take a dance, exercise, or adult education class.
Join a group. Join a congregation of worship, a chorus, or a book club. Take up a hobby that you can share with others, such as a sport or a game (chess, mah-jongg, cards, Scrabble).
Volunteer. Helping others has been shown to boost your mood and well-being in addition to expanding your social network. Choose something you enjoy doing and really care about. Shy people might want to focus on one-on-one opportunities, such as teaching reading, English, or a special skill you may have. For ideas, inquire at local hospitals, nursing homes, daycare centers, humane societies, or national organizations (see “Volunteer suggestions”).
You can explore a range of volunteer opportunities at these organizations:
Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org) connects people with local volunteer opportunities that match their interests and expertise with such choices as helping animals, assisting immigrants and refugees, working with computers and technology, and numerous others.
Senior Corps (www.seniorcorps.gov) is a large national volunteer network for people ages 55 or older. They support a range of nonprofit local community organizations that mentor and tutor at-risk youth, rebuild communities struck by natural disasters, and help seniors live independently.
Experience Corps (www.aarp.org/experience-corps) recruits and trains older adults to tutor children from kindergarten through third grade who are struggling to read. They work in lower-income districts in 22 cities throughout the country.
Below are spiritual recipe for health and wellness: Matthew E. McLaren
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4 NIV
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Romans 12:12 NIV
When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. Psalm 94:19 NIV
The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. Psalm 118:24 NIV
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV
You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11 NIV
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV
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